Saturday, May 29, 2010

Me and High Notes

No matter what you imagine your limitations to be -- no matter what your body looks or feels like now, even if you've been in a slump for a year -- if you're willing to undergo the initiation necessary to develop your talent, you will become a natural athlete.  All the qualities are within you native to you. You may have to direct more energy and time than someone else in order to bring out the proper qualities, but you certainly have the capacity to do it.
Dan Millman

When I read that quote this morning from the book mentioned above, I definitely thought of my quest to develop the higher range of my voice.

It has taken me a long long time to be able to sing anything like a high note.

And it is taking me even longer, now that I can make some noise "up there" to create any kind of sound that is at all musical.

My relationship with high notes has been complex.  Originally, they were a great mystery to me.  As a child, I would open my  mouth and try to sing a high note and a kind of ugly squawk would come out.  I just didn't get it at all.  I didn't even know how to begin.  I decided that it was simply something that was not in my repertoire of things I could do.

But when I first started taking voice lessons over 25 years ago, my teacher said that I was a soprano.  Well, as they say, you could have blowed me over with a feather!  Me?  A soprano?

But how could she possibly say that when I couldn't sing any high notes?  She just didn't seem to notice that I couldn't sing any high notes.  Aren't sopranoes supposed to sing high notes?

So, for a while, I tried to believe that  I was going to be able to sing high notes.

After a time of having little success with this, however, I did reach a point where I finally decided I just did not have the physiology for it, and resigned myself to the limited voice I had been endowed with by nature.

Now here, however, is an example where vocal science and a little knowledge of physiology can contribute to the development of a singer.  When I studied the way the whole thing worked, it seemed to me that based on what I was understanding -- based on the way the thing was designed, and based on the way muscles worked -- that I ought to be able to develop high notes.  So, I became determined to find out, once and for all, whether I indeed could or not sing high notes.  I made a decision to dedicate myself to the project of developing the higher range of my voice.  Something inside me believed that my inability with high notes was not a natural physical limitation, but something else, and I wanted to find out.

In the same book mentioned above -- The Inner Athlete: Realizing Your Fullest Potential, by Dan Millman -- the author tells the story of his friend's 4-year-old daughter who looked at the birds flying and decided she might be able to do that.  His friend allowed his daughter to repeatedly jump off the couch flapping her arms, trying and trying to fly.  The author asked his friend why he just didn't save her all that time and trouble and tell her that humans couldn't fly and the friend said that he didn't want to tell her that humans couldn't fly because he might be wrong.  The father of the little girl had the wisdom to allow her to explore her abilities and discover the natural limitations of her physical powers on her own.

Sometimes in my quest to develop high notes, I have wondered if I am, like the little girl, trying to learn to do something that is not possible for me.  I have wondered if I will waste a lot of time working to develop a skill that I don't necessarily need, and that in the end I will find out that it was something that I never was going to be able to do after all.

Yet, this journey of believing that it is possible and that I will be able to do it is so interesting and wonderful.  I have made more progress than I would have believed before I started.  And as long as I am still making progress, I must continue.  I will continue until it is very clear to me that I am limited in this way and just will not be able to do it.  Until that day comes, I must keep trying.

Some motivation came my way in recent months.  It was a beautiful piece of music.  Maybe -- just maybe --this is the best motivation of all to inspire one to acquire better skill.  The desire to put voice to a beautiful vocal line.  A vocal line that beckons to be sung.

In our recent choir concert, we performed the premier of the Magnificat of Argentinian composer, Leonardo San Juan.  The Et Misericordia that he wrote as a solo for a soprano is one of the most beautiful songs that I have ever heard.  There is one line in particular that soars up to a high A and tumbles back down again in such a graceful manner and it tugs at my heartstrings and makes me want to experience it in my voice.

Yet, alas, the tessitura is beyond my reach.  When I took a look at the song in my practice studio, and attempted to sing the lines, the tension and discomfort was unbelievable.  And it sounded as bad as it felt.

Still, I made a little challenge for myself to try to use the song as an exercise -- to see if I couldn't get it to the point where I could sing it.

Well, I've been singing this Et Misericordia for weeks. There has been progress and little incremental improvements, but overall, it was not anything fit for consumption.  In fact, a few times I wanted to post the work I did on it in my practice room, but withdrew it from embarrassment.

Until today.  I had a little breakthrough with my understanding today of the way I was using breath pressure.  I realized something that freed it up a little bit and I think I'm on to something that is going to payoff before too long.  I managed to catch the moment on one of my recordings and I'll post it in Frescamari's Practice Room a little later.

If things go the way I would like, and you stick with me on this journey, you may yet get to hear me do "a little something" with high notes before the end of my blogging days.  I shall definitely keep you posted.


  1. Hi Frescamari! I'm Dalila Valentine posting under a new name because I now have a "public" blog of my own.

    Your post interested me for a variety of reasons. As a girl I was always told I was a soprano because I had an easy time singing Gs and As. And I am always put in the soprano section of choirs because I have an easy time singing Gs and As.

    And thaaaaaat's it!!

    But to be an operatic mezzo you need a B flat and a B natural, even for some, a C.

    I vocalize up to a C most days and now know that I can sing a high B flat well, but I sing it loud, anchored and with a dropped larynx.

    I hear a lot of female singers, even contraltos, talk about the "whistle register" and some of them can "whistle" way up above High C.

    I asked my teacher about that and he said some people just don't have the physiological capability to do that. I have basically no falsetto sound above a G (although on a good day I can sing an authentic supported pianissimo on an A) and have no staccati above a G either.

    My teacher said I don't need any of that, if I can sing a B flat or a B natural with a dropped larynx that's good enough.

    He said to forget about the interpolated B flat at the end of "Mon Coeur". The aria is supposed to be a seduction, the note isn't written, and if I don't have the capability to sing "pretty" up there I should sing a lovely F (the ending isn't written for Dalila anyhow) and leave things at that.

    I was pleasantly surprised at how well I could sing the B flat at the end of Sappho's "O My Lyre Immortelle" but then you can scream as loud as you want.

    I asked him if my lack of a whistle register had to do with my once having been a heavy smoker (age 13-26) and he said no.

  2. Hi Dalila,
    It's so funny you mentioned whistle tones because every once in a while I experiment to see if ANYthing will come of my trying to access/develop (whatever you want to call it) the whistle tone facility of my voice.

    So, just yesterday, I was playing around again, thinking that my recent new awarenesses of better breath flow might make a difference in being able to figure out whistle tone.

    I have said this before and I say again here that I don't expect to ever perform in a high tessitura with the type of voice I have. But developing the ability to sing a song that's not "mine" and working towards greater ease and ability with that song is excellent towards my overall vocal capability, even if I would not be the singer you would want to hear on that song.

    When I read about whistle tone -- well, I can't say that I know more than a voice teacher would -- but it just seems to me that everyone ought to be able to find it and experiment with it.

    In the book I mention often, Discover Your Voice, by Oren Brown, he says that it can be found and that one has to have a lot of patience and try just a little bit every day (and try in just the way he describes in his book).

    Right now I don't have proof in the pudding. But my instinct is that everyone should be able to find the right coordination for it, and be able to achieve at least some modest results.

    On the other hand maybe there really is some physical limitation, like genetically teeny tiny cricothyroids or something like that. Or some kind of weakness, like the way some people don't have good natural upper body strength or something.

  3. What my teacher says is that some people's vocal chords can "segment" in such a way that they can isolate the extreme edges and that other people's chords are "thicker" and can't do that. He also stressed that being able to do that is not necessary, particularly since I'm a mezzo with quite a large voice (he has me learning Amneris, which, surprisingly, is ideally suited to my voice in that the higher she sings, the louder the dynamic markings). He has also discouraged me from fooling around with falsetto, saying that it will mess up the good solid work I've done on extending my upper register singing with a low larynx position.

    I do keep wondering if my years of smoking had some effect - not anything that would be noticeable in any other situation, but that my chords are not as elastic as those of someone who never smoked.

    My teacher also pointed out that my speaking voice is very heavily in the chest, but whether that's a cause or an effect of my not having a whistle register I don't know.

    In fact it never ceases to amaze me how high many women's speaking voices are, particularly women from Gen X or Y. Many of them sound like children.

  4. Your teacher has an explanation, at least, and that can serve to ease any kind of worry someone might feel about not having that facility of the voice. After all, one can still sing, and sing beautifully.

    But in my very stubborn and idealistic way, I keep thinking that it ought to be able to be developed, even in people for whom it does not come naturally.

    When he says that some people's vocal cords can "segment," I wonder if that means that it comes naturally to some people and other people have to work to be able to get their vocal cords to do that.

    As far as it not being necessary to be able to perform that feat of vocal cord agility, I still can't help but think that it could be beneficial to have that kind of awareness, control and dexterity in using the voice. It seems that to have that suppleness, responsiveness and ability to choose would help in the refinement of every note in the voice.

    You know, as far as the smoking, sometimes when I am curious about how the voice is affected, I find good answers when looking up what the speech therapists and speech scientists discover. Sometimes the people doing the research are the ones who are working with the speaking voice. It might be starting place to find out what kind of effects smoking has in the long run on the voice.

    Although from anything I've ever heard, the effects of smoking can be healed to a very great extent after one quits, depending on circumstances like good nutrition and overall other health practices, I suppose.

  5. Oh, just as a point of clarification, my voice is very agile!! I sing "Rejoice Greatly" very well and sing a lot of Handel. I have, actually, quite phenomenal breath control.

    I just can't sing falsetto (or softly, or sweetly) above a G (I can do it on an A flat or an A natural occasionally but not reliably) and actually very little music for large mezzo voices requires that and many of the great Italian mezzos never sang that way.

    Dolora Zajick has a gorgeous pianissimo but I don't think she's singing falsetto.